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Saturday, Jan. 25, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Joy for the standing man: Densha Don's seat secrets


In riding the iron ponies hither and thither across the urban plains of Japan, I'm one railroad cowboy who would just love to experience the singular pain of a real-life horsemen.

That being . . . saddle sores.

"I almost never get a seat," I gripe. "Sometimes I don't even get a commuter strap. Heck, sometimes I don't even get the space to plant both feet."

"That's because you're thinking with your bottom and not for it. Use your head, man! There's always a way to rest your rump!"

The speaker is a seasoned veteran of Japan's commuter wars, a man who more often than not comes out on top . . . on top of a seat, that is. Let's call him "Densha Don," as in (cue the music for "Delta Dawn"):

"Densha Don, what's that strap you're hanging on? Could be your last resort for seats gone by!"

Densha Don says anyone should be able to get a seat anytime. The following, then, is his thinking man's primer to riding comfortably on the ever-crowded rails of Tokyo.

The Crack of Dawn Approach: "While the city never sleeps," says Don, "most of the people in it do. Just beat them to the station. If you out-early everybody, I guarantee you will ride in comfort.

"Then, if tired, you can do what most other early birds do -- snooze all day at your office."

The Out and In Approach: "Instead of heading into the city, head out. Backtrack until you reach the train's departure point, then head in again. The way out is never crowded, and you are certain to get a seat at the line's start.

"Perhaps this will add hours to your trip, but just think of how smug you'll feel when you chug into your local station and watch your hometown fellows get pushed into the car like Play-Doh."

The Know Your Enemy Approach: "Commuters are creatures of habit, and if you take the same train by and large you will share it with the same passengers, day in, day out. Make it your task to recognize each person in your car.

"Learn everything about everyone: their baggage, their hairstyles, their fashion -- or lack of it.

"Then keep notes of who gets off where. Once you identify who will be vacating which seat, squirm your way in front of that person.

"Then, when the seat opens, strike at once. Remember: On the train, he who hesitates is not only lost, he is lost in a standing position."

The No Seat Is Too Small Approach: "Sometimes there's a sliver of an opening between two passengers, big enough perhaps for a stuffed toy.

"So what? Smile, say 'Sumimasen' and take it. People may paint you with evil eyes, but they will still scoot enough to allow room for at least part of your body. Then, if you force yourself in tighter, you might be able to pop someone off their seat like a bottle cap under pressure.

"Whatever you do next, don't look up. If you feel guilty, you deserve to stand anyway."

Other approaches . . .

"Feign illness. Cough, wheeze and from time to time clutch desperately at your heart. There are 12 million people in Tokyo, and sooner or later you're bound to find some gullible soul who will let you sit.

"Or . . . carry a big cane. Lean on it as if your legs were made of papier-mache. If that doesn't get people's attention, 'accidentally' place the cane on top of somebody's toe -- then lean again. That time they will notice for sure. And if they get mad, who cares? You're holding a big cane.

"Or . . . try carrying a screaming, wriggling kid. Japanese love kids, and someone will relinquish their seat for sure -- which is the reason why I carried my son to work with me until he was 14.

"Next . . . just stand there and cry. Wail uncontrollably into some pathetic wad of tissue until everyone in the entire car is aware.

"Here there are two maxims to keep in mind: 1. Few things are as heart-ripping as someone anguishing in public; and 2. P.T. Barnum had it right. There's a sucker born every minute -- and someone will give you a seat.

"Or do the opposite . . . laugh.

"Laugh like a lunatic -- right at the person in front of you. And then maybe hold an engaging chat with an invisible friend. If you're lucky, half the car might soon decide they would prefer a different train, leaving plenty of room for you -- and your friend too.

"Or . . . ogle the passenger sitting before you with fat, puppy-dog eyes and say: 'Can I practice my Japanese with you? Please?'

"Most passengers will hate this, but they may be too polite to refuse. At this point you have to utilize your natural 'gaijin' gift. In other words, be obnoxious, with dumb inquiries like: 'How long have you been in Tokyo? Do you like Tokyo food? Can you use a knife and fork? And what do you think of Tokyo girls?'

"Think of the times you have changed train cars to avoid some Japanese English-speaker from peppering you with similar dialog. And watch . . . sooner rather than later, your conversation partner will exit the train -- in order to keep his sanity.

"I can't do any of the above," I confess to Densha Don. "I'm too shy. So I guess I'm doomed to flow with the crowd."

"Nonsense," says Don. "I've left out the most foolproof way -- the one method that allows perfect commuting comfort each day of the year."

Which is?

"Stupid! Stay at home and telecommute. Ride your sofa, not the blasted trains."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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